Oamaru, in north Otago, boasts a precinct of Victorian commercial buildings, made in a picturesque, Neo Classical style out of Oamaru stone. But while the buildings – built between 1865 and 1885 – are an attraction in themselves, the retail tenants inside them are sometimes left shivering in the cold, and battling with a lack of window display space.
Oamaru vintage clothing and accessories store Tiger Lily’s opens reduced hours in winter to help combat the difficulty and high cost of heating the old Victorian building in which it is situated.
“It can get very, very cold,” admits worker Patsy Harvey. A number of other nearby shops close altogether in winter.
But the old building fits well with what is offered in Tiger Lily’s: vintage clothing made by Harvey, plus artistic clothing and artworks created by owner Dyan Prujean.
“It works in really well,” Harvey says. “It creates a lot of interest for people to come and visit us too.”
The store’s main customers are international tourists, although domestic tourist numbers are increasing as Oamaru becomes better known. Harvey admits there is a danger in relying too much on the international tourists: “They take lots of photos and don’t buy a lot”.
A number of customers come to Tiger Lily’s for the unique items made by Harvey, such as men’s Victorian waistcoats made to fit the modern man, who is often wider than his Victorian counterpart.
Dawn Brown from Presence on Harbour agrees getting customers from Oamaru and surrounding areas is key to success, rather than relying on the seasonal tourist dollar. The Oamaru Farmer’s Market, which runs just down the road each Sunday, helps bring locals to the area, she says.
Brown’s “groovy” giftware shop is based in an historic building owned by the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust, which she admits faces a big maintenance job on the 130-year-old buildings. Her building is about to get a new roof and new internal gutters, ensuring no more leaks or drafts.
Brown asked for the work to be done in August, because it is her quietest month. She also opens reduced hours in winters and closes on Wednesdays because, while the store has two heat pumps, they are expensive to run in the quietest part of the year.
There are also other downsides to being in the old building: the shop’s windows are small and high, making it difficult to do any window displays, and conventional displays don’t work instore because they can’t be fixed to the stone walls.
But being in the Victorian precinct is not all bad, she insists.
Rent is cheaper than on Oamaru’s main street and the area has a great ambience.
“A lot of people just come down because they like to look at the buildings – domestic tourists and locals too. Not everyone spends money but we feel if they come into our store, maybe they will come back another day.”
Greg Waite from Oasis Oamaru set up his antique and collectible homeware store in a Victorian building because of its large size and affordability.
“Whereas it creates atmosphere, there is also the aspect that big, large warehouses are expensive.”
In a building also owned by the civic trust, Waite says he overcame the drawbacks by installing four large heat pumps, ceiling fans and special lighting from Indonesia. The end result is a warm and light store, comfortable enough for people to spend three to four hours in while browsing Oasis Oamaru’s large book collection.
The Oamaru Victorian precinct appeals because it is distinct from anything else in New Zealand. “What we have here is unique, there’s nothing else like it.”
However, Waite believes the precinct is about much more than just buildings: the retailers have to offer something equally high quality and unique.
“If we’re just like any other shopping centre, why would you want to look at a few old buildings?
“You’ve got to be offering something different and high, high quality,” he says. “The mantra is excellence.”
While Waite also has an Indonesian-based business which sells goods around the world, he says the store in Oamaru is crucial.
“I love this business. I love walking into the shop in the mornings.”